By Gale Sterling
Tucked into the ground-floor corner of an INOVA Medical building in the heart of McLean sits Sweetbites Café and Bakery, a small shop selling quality European-style pastries and wholesome prepared foods made from scratch daily, onsite in its tiny kitchen.
Sandra Panetta opened the café in 2015 after five years of running one of the first food trucks in the D.C. area. Sandra grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., the daughter of Italian immigrants from whom she learned the value of hard work and entrepreneurship. Her grandfather and her father owned small businesses; her father was a professional tailor, a skill he learned as a young apprentice in Italy. But her biggest inspiration was her mother, an amazing cook, who still bakes beautiful desserts!
Sandra got started in the bakery business slowly, transitioning into it as a second career, moonlighting as a caterer, baking and selling miniature pastries. After ten years, intrigued by both the food truck industry that was slowly making its way across the country, and the trending cupcake craze, Sandra took the plunge and retired from her 30-year career in Environmental Policy. She bought, sight-unseen, an old mail truck which she outfitted with kitchen equipment, electricity, storage units and hot running water. For several years, she drove in to downtown D.C. selling mini-cupcakes out of the truck, while also working diligently to help ensure that the local food truck industry operated legally and successfully. In 2015, she was ready to go stationary.
Sweetbites provides a bright, unique relaxing atmosphere for the community to enjoy fresh food and coffee both inside the shop and on its outdoor patio which was built a few summers ago by Sandra’s son. Coffee and espresso drinks are made with ILLY-brand beans from Italy. With the exception of bagels (which come direct from Long Island, N.Y.), all the food items are baked and prepared in-house. Sandra’s two bakers have been with her for years, one even since the day the café opened! Sandra’s daughter has also spent several summers working in the bakery. Breakfast burritos are available throughout the day, as are hot Panini sandwiches, soups, salads, and of course, delicious pastries, including gluten-free options. Among Sandra’s favorites are the Chocolate Croissants, Not-Your-Average-Lemon Bars, and the Tiramisu Cake. The Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting are as popular now as they were when Sandra sold them from her truck! Hot fresh Cinnamon Buns are a “huge hit” but Sandra warns that they sell out quickly, so come early if you want one! The store is open Monday-Friday from 7:30am-5pm.
For Sandra, it continues to be a joy to talk with and get to know her customers, especially those who come in every day! Seeing their smiles when they look into the bakery case is priceless, she says, and she hopes everyone knows how much she appreciates all the continued support throughout the years! Be sure to visit Sweetbites Café and Bakery, located at 6845 Elm Street, McLean, 22101 (703) 448-1115.